Department header
Bewildering Stories

Challenge 797 Response

Wishful Thinking

with Robin Helweg-Larsen

[Challenge 797] In Robin Helweg-Larsen’s Wishful Thinking, is “simulation” itself “wishful thinking”?

[Robin H-L] “simulation” is indeed “wishful thinking,” along with the Viking and Christian hopes that there will be something we evolve/return to after we die... And perhaps there is but, clearly, all our thinking about it is wishful!

[Don Webb] Quite so, Robin. An eminent scholar in the history of religion says:

“Human beings find it almost impossible to live without a sense that, despite the distressing evidence to the contrary, life has ultimate meaning and value.” — Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God, p. 135

Concepts of an afterlife range from paradises to hells to nothing at all. And it’s individual choice; it doesn’t matter what religion or philosophy one subscribes to. As you imply, wishful thinking may or may not be very appealing. After all, we have no way of knowing what’s in the afterlife short of going there, and volunteers have no reason to believe they will get what they expect.

Nobody knows the rules. Reincarnation? Are we reborn as somebody else’s baby? Talk about luck of the draw... Metempsychosis? Does our consciousness transmigrate to a new body? Baby or adult, do I get the body I have or the one I want? Or maybe we become something else, like a tree or cow. It all seems to be more trouble than it’s worth. Or do we go to some eternal reward or punishment? Why eternal? And what purpose does it serve?

What’s left but to imagine the hereafter — or not — as we will. Hence the comforting or scary stories we tell each other about it. As a result, “take your pick” reveals a lot about ourselves but nothing about what is or may be outside our goldfish bowl.

However, modern cosmology and religion share a common platform where physics meets faith. Science is right to ask why anything exists. Why do we have “being” rather than “nothingness”? Did all the energy and, ultimately, matter in the cosmos come from an infinitesimal singularity we call the Big Bang? Who — or what — had that idea? Is it some deity’s notion of a cosmic joke? Or is it a logical necessity?

Saying that “nothing is” creates a conundrum; the assertion is self-contradictory. Neither existence nor non-existence can be predicated. For example:

“Unicorns exist.”
“Okay, show me one.”
“Unicorns do not exist.”
“Oh, really? At least the idea exists. Let’s wait and see.”

We’re left holding the bag of our own imagery, and your “Simulator” seems serviceable in that regard.

But isn’t even a Prime Mover subject to the nature of time? It’s illustrated quite clearly in Alberto Chimal’s “A Young Man’s Fortune.” A young man wants to know his future. Okay, a fortune-teller shows it to him. The young man is quite disappointed.

But the joke is on him: the fortune-teller hasn’t shown him the future at all; he’s merely told the young man a cautionary tale about a possible future. The young man has a true future only as long as he doesn’t know what it is.

The concept of an unknowable future is primordial. For example, English verbs are exceedingly complex compared to those in many other languages, but they have only two tenses: the present and non-present.

Like all Indo-European languages, English has no true future tense; it refers to the future as a mood of the present. “We will be” uses the present tense of the modal auxiliary “will” plus an infinitive. The conditional mood, “we would be,” uses the non-present tense of “will.” Grammatically, then, the future is either a logical or hypothetical extrapolation of the present.

I’ll head off an objection from our colleagues who are fluent in other languages. The Romance languages have evolved what is commonly regarded as a true future tense. For example: in French, nous dormirons means “we will sleep.” It’s listed in grammar books as part of the future tense of dormir.

But it’s a phonetic accident. Late Latin used a form somewhat similar to English: an infinitive plus the present tense of the auxiliary verb habere, thus: dormire habemus. French merely contracts the two verbs into one and shortens the result by three syllables. The so-called true future tense is a linguistic magic trick.

What to conclude but that the universe is a self-generating, dynamic art form. By its very nature, it has a future. And it can be quite intriguing, especially to a Prime Mover: “Let’s create a universe and see what happens!” How many universes have come into existence in the same way and for the same reason? We — like fish in a cosmic fireworks display inside a goldfish bowl — are busy happening. Beyond that? Wish away.

Copyright © 2019 by Robin Helweg-Larsen
and Bewildering Stories

Home Page